Archive | In My Mind’s I by Harriet Gross

Commemorating two strong women

Posted on 18 September 2019 by admin

September means two yahrzeits, for mother and aunt

It happens like this every year, sometime in September. I stand in shul, on two successive Shabbats, for two beloved relatives who died in the same hospital within the same week, so many years ago. 

It was 1984. My mother had no definitive illness; she just went slowly, slowly downhill until she passed away. On her death certificate, the reason given is “anemia of unknown etiology.” 

My Aunt Luba had cancer, throughout her body. She was wiry and strong all her life, until one day she fell, and couldn’t get up. But she had neglected to tell anyone — especially not her doctor — that she had been spitting up blood. 

Two women, two sisters, so different in life, so different in death. I made a last visit to see them just a week or so before they died, just a few days apart — but just long enough to make their yahrzeits fall in two different weeks. 

I had just had my first breast cancer surgery, and was undergoing radiation treatment, when I knew I had to go home to say goodbye to my mother and my aunt. My treatment team gave me one day off, giving me a three-day weekend away from my own illness, to face the illness of two beloved others. My visit to my mother was the hardest: I had not told her about my own disease, and had no intention to do so at this time of finality. 

When I entered her room, she was awake, but so weak. She gave me a small smile, limply held my hand while we exchanged a few words about — I can’t even remember what. What I will never forget is that she asked me to adjust her pillows, so that her head was higher, and she could be more comfortable. But I knew I couldn’t do that with my weak right arm, and I was not going to say no, and be honest about why. Thinking as quickly as I could under the circumstances, I said: “Let me call a nurse. Nurses are much better at this kind of thing than I am.” And, I managed to leave the room before I started to cry. My dear mother’s last request of me, and I couldn’t fulfill it. I hope none of you who read this ever have to experience such a dreadful moment. 

When I found a nurse, I told her I would walk down the hallway to see my Aunt Luba. She was her usual cheerful self, even as I came in just in time to hear her doctor give the final, fatal report. “What can I say?” was all he said. She received the news of her impending end with the same spirit she had handled everything else in a life that was — thankfully — not filled with difficulty, but like all lives, had its difficult moments. 

I kissed her and said goodbye. Then I walked back up the hallway to my mother’s room. She was asleep. I kissed her and said goodbye. I was not able to be at either of their funerals. 

There are sad things in life that are often not talked about as much as they should be. But they need to be told, to be understood, to be sympathized with. Every year, for two consecutive Shabbats, I stand in the synagogue to say Kaddish, and I cry inside for those incomplete, unsatisfying goodbyes. But I also say thanks for my own survival, which has allowed me to fulfill these sacred duties every year for the past 35 years. The lights of my mother and my aunt are lit, one the first week, the other the second, next to their plaques on my shul’s memorial board. I am grateful to be in a good place for remembering them, and for seeing the lights that remind everyone that they are remembered. 

Life is like this: It is for loving and for remembering.

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The unspoken tzedakah of 9/11

Posted on 12 September 2019 by admin

A personal account
of helping a
stranger in need
9/11/01. Another day, like Pearl Harbor, to forever “live in infamy.” Did you spend all day yesterday remembering, as I did?
What stories can be told about it? There’s a seemingly miraculous tale about nine observant Jews who prayed together regularly in a little shul near their World Trade Center offices being delayed that day because a 10th man never turned up to make a minyan. Just one of many reports invoking the Almighty.
My tale isn’t miraculous — except for the fact that it happened. I woke up that morning, turned on the TV, and started screaming. But being nothing, if not practical: I had a voucher for a flight refund from a small airline (no longer in existence) that had to be redeemed in person at its D/FW desk. When I called the airline — which, it turned out, was clueless — I was told that yes, it was business as usual, I should just come in with my voucher. So I did.
I drove to D/FW: no traffic. I drove to the proper gate entrance — no cars anywhere. I went to the airline desk: Two women were there; next to them was another airline’s desk which had already been deserted. I claimed my refund and was about to leave when suddenly a crowd of people came on the scene; the last plane in the air on its way to DF/W had just landed, and all its passengers were looking for representatives from their next-desk airline, which had none on duty.
What could I do? Everyone was milling around, needing all the help that people who have suddenly been totally deserted most need: information, and contacts for using the information they get. To their great credit, the two at the desk of that insignificant, long-gone airline stayed there, using their phones to contact hotels, to see if cabs could come to pick people up. What more could they do?
But I knew — because my Judaism has taught me nothing if not this: I could help one person directly, and by myself “save one (granted, small) world.” I picked out a man at random — tall, with thin sandy hair, looking to be in his mid-40s, wearing shorts and sandals. I went over to him and asked if I could help, and how. Turned out, he was a top-level internationally known soccer coach and judge on his way from Australia to participate in some up coming events. He was stranded far from where he was supposed to be. I invited him to come home with me, and he was more than grateful. My car — my beat-up beloved old Prizm — was the last private vehicle to leave D/FW Airport for several days to come.
Once in the house, I showed him the guest room, cleared out a shelf in the refrigerator, and offered the telephone, plus my promise to drive him to shop for his own food. (You all know by now that I am not a cook, so I included him in the amounts of whatever I threw together for my husband and myself, but gave him an option I was sure he’d also be glad to accept!) Fred also took part in driving this unexpected guest as necessary.
Our Aussie was, of course, unable to get to any of the matches he’d traveled so far for, because no planes would be flying in time. Instead, he lived with us for three weeks, until he was finally able to make arrangements for getting back to the Outback. In all that time, even at its end, no money changed hands. I never did ask for compensation, and he never did offer. We both knew that this was a once -in-a-lifetime situation that was beyond material charge or cost. We did not become friends; we have had no contact since. This was just one of those strange things — and there were so many of them — that happened in the wake of 9/11.

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Appreciating the light of knowledge

Posted on 04 September 2019 by admin

A focus on Pitt’s special ‘Lantern Night’


I have made yet another trip back to my hometown, Pittsburgh. It was for a happier occasion than the other recent three: two for visits to my dear Uncle Irwin during the illness that finally claimed his life, the final one for his funeral and shiva. In contrast, this one was for a celebration at my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh.
Every year, Pitt has a special ceremony to welcome its entering freshmen women. Called “Lantern Night,” it’s held on the evening before the day fall classes will begin, and starts in daylight but goes on until well after dark. Every girl — 1,300 this time — gets her own lantern, pre-fitted with a candle. All gather in a huge tent outside the school’s (non-religious) Heinz Chapel to wait until after the various welcomes and such are over, then enter, 18 at a time, to face 18 women with tall tapers, nine on each side of the main aisle, and formally receive “The Light of Knowledge.”
It’s a gorgeous sight when all these young women are joined outside by those who have come to witness this event, to sing with the men’s choir the “Alma Mater,” in the shadow of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, under night skies lit only by those newly acquired lamps of learning.
This was the 99th year for Lantern Night, Pitt’s oldest unbroken tradition. I went back to take part as a greeter of guests and to watch, because I never got a lantern myself! You see, I entered the university at the midterm, when there was no such ceremony. My first college day was in January 1951, and I graduated in June 1954 — 65 years ago. And, when someone in “high places” heard about this, I was invited to come and be a part of this year’s evening, and receive a much-belated lantern of my own!
It was amazing to sit in the back of the chapel, as those young women entered, carrying their lanterns. They were of every size, shape, height and color, dressed as they pleased, with skirts, pants, dresses. A few hijabs identified some, but for the rest — no way to know anything about their beliefs, or lack of same. For on that one night, each was just her unidentified self, an individual ready to begin the next morning on the educational adventure of her life, no matter what course that life might take.
I myself didn’t walk in that seemingly endless line to have a candle lit. But as I watched the parade, I offered a silent prayer: that for all of these marchers, the light of knowledge would shine bright, and that at the end of the longer journey each was beginning, she might find — as I have — that my alma mater gave me everything I needed for a productive and fulfilled life: by recognizing my ability to write, and by encouraging it; fine-tuning it in classrooms, on publication staffs, and through one-on-one conferences with people who truly cared. For giving me the skills and confidence to make writing my career, and finally, to use it in sharing what I think, and know, and believe in, with those who read what I write: people like you!
I came home richer for this belated experience — for watching what I never had myself as a freshman — and for the privilege, as a very senior alumna, to claim my own lantern, which will always be with me as a symbol of the glorious Light of Knowledge that has so fully illuminated my life.
It all ended when one of the staff planners said to me, “I’m going to carve your name on the Pitt Walk of Fame! I have a penknife, and I know how to use it!” We both laughed. But I wasn’t kidding when I told her, “This is no joke. God willing, I’ll be back next year, for Lantern Night Number 100!”

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Finding communication amid clutter

Posted on 04 September 2019 by admin

I have long since forgotten who gave me the tastefully gold-lettered sign that’s been rooted on my workspace for years. “A Cluttered Desk Is the Mark of Genius,” it says. Of course, it is securely planted amid the everlasting clutter, sometimes rendered almost invisible, lost among folders, boxes, books and piles of paper.
Among the latter, I often find bits covered with impossible-to-decipher notes that once must have meant something – maybe even something important. No matter how often I neaten things up, no matter how diligently I purge the accumulations, no matter how often I promise myself I won’t let the desk get into that shape again, it always does. That sign remains at the center of things, endlessly reminding me of its comforting half-truth, half-lie A cluttered desk? Yes! A sign of genius? Not so much.
One of my worst habits is making quick notes on small scraps of paper, that just as quickly become parts of the workday rubble, later to be found as lost futures that have already faded into the past. When I unearth them, they are like strange treasures encountered during an excavation, all needing similar research. Why didn’t I jot down a name with this telephone number, since I have no idea whose it is? Where is the announcement of the forthcoming book review I’ve made a note to attend, and when? And, what is the book in question?
It’s amazing how quickly some “current events” stop being current, and how unimportant some heavily underlined future events become after I missed them. But, it’s also amazing how often I unearth a forgotten gem that I can once again reread with the great pleasure it gave me originally – which I why I saved it: Because it makes me think. Here’s one I have just found, penciled in my own handwriting, on a nondescript square of scratch paper, source unknown.
“It does no harm, just once in a while, to acknowledge that the whole country isn’t in flames. That there are people in this country besides politicians, entertainers and criminals. And they do really good things. And maybe the world isn’t such a bad place after all.”
I have no idea who said this, or when and why, and how it took up residence on my desk. But it’s a good message, and I’m glad I wrote it down. I would like to thank whoever said this, but I don’t even have an unidentified phone number for this one.
Here’s another: “I fear a day when I will not remember you…No longer see your face, or feel your touch…” This reads like the start of a poem written after a very personal loss. Written by whom? This is scrawled, in my own handwriting, of course, on a scrap of paper less than half the size of the one mentioned above. There is a clue of sorts: The handwritten note is below what is obviously the printed head of a longer piece of paper. It says, in blue letters, “A Note for You.” Am I the “You?” Whose note is/was this, anyway? I have very recently marked five years since the passing of my husband, and am definitely not the owner of this “fear.” But, where did I get this? And why? And how? And from whom?
Clearing off my desk to once again reach “ground level” is among many projects that can be postponed, and too often are. But this one shouldn’t be, because I know I will always find some forgotten treasures, such as the ones noted above. Good words, important words, words worth passing on. And, when I finally start to do it, I also know I’ll have that same “clean” feeling I get after unloading the dishwasher or the washing machine. Even better, because the desktop makes promises of hidden treasures to be found, reread, appreciated – maybe even the gifts of true geniuses with equally messy desks!

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Finding communication amid clutter

Posted on 28 August 2019 by admin

I have long since forgotten who gave me the tastefully gold-lettered sign that’s been rooted on my workspace for years. “A Cluttered Desk Is the Mark of Genius,” it says. Of course, it is securely planted amid the everlasting clutter, sometimes rendered almost invisible, lost among folders, boxes, books and piles of paper.
Among the latter, I often find bits covered with impossible-to-decipher notes that once must have meant something – maybe even something important. No matter how often I neaten things up, no matter how diligently I purge the accumulations, no matter how often I promise myself I won’t let the desk get into that shape again, it always does. That sign remains at the center of things, endlessly reminding me of its comforting half-truth, half-lie A cluttered desk? Yes! A sign of genius? Not so much.
One of my worst habits is making quick notes on small scraps of paper, that just as quickly become parts of the workday rubble, later to be found as lost futures that have already faded into the past. When I unearth them, they are like strange treasures encountered during an excavation, all needing similar research. Why didn’t I jot down a name with this telephone number, since I have no idea whose it is? Where is the announcement of the forthcoming book review I’ve made a note to attend, and when? And, what is the book in question?
It’s amazing how quickly some “current events” stop being current, and how unimportant some heavily underlined future events become after I missed them. But, it’s also amazing how often I unearth a forgotten gem that I can once again reread with the great pleasure it gave me originally – which I why I saved it: Because it makes me think. Here’s one I have just found, penciled in my own handwriting, on a nondescript square of scratch paper, source unknown.
“It does no harm, just once in a while, to acknowledge that the whole country isn’t in flames. That there are people in this country besides politicians, entertainers and criminals. And they do really good things. And maybe the world isn’t such a bad place after all.”
I have no idea who said this, or when and why, and how it took up residence on my desk. But it’s a good message, and I’m glad I wrote it down. I would like to thank whoever said this, but I don’t even have an unidentified phone number for this one.
Here’s another: “I fear a day when I will not remember you…No longer see your face, or feel your touch…” This reads like the start of a poem written after a very personal loss. Written by whom? This is scrawled, in my own handwriting, of course, on a scrap of paper less than half the size of the one mentioned above. There is a clue of sorts: The handwritten note is below what is obviously the printed head of a longer piece of paper. It says, in blue letters, “A Note for You.” Am I the “You?” Whose note is/was this, anyway? I have very recently marked five years since the passing of my husband, and am definitely not the owner of this “fear.” But, where did I get this? And why? And how? And from whom?
Clearing off my desk to once again reach “ground level” is among many projects that can be postponed, and too often are. But this one shouldn’t be, because I know I will always find some forgotten treasures, such as the ones noted above. Good words, important words, words worth passing on. And, when I finally start to do it, I also know I’ll have that same “clean” feeling I get after unloading the dishwasher or the washing machine. Even better, because the desktop makes promises of hidden treasures to be found, reread, appreciated – maybe even the gifts of true geniuses with equally messy desks!

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Modern-day meaning in four sons

Posted on 22 August 2019 by admin

I usually think about “four sons” only at the springtime Seder table. But now it’s Rosh Hashanah, not Passover, that’s fast approaching, and so many horrifying things going on in so many places are being perpetrated by young men — each of them someone’s son. So I find myself remembering another four young men, the ones my wise father often referred to in some sort of olden-times parable. This has helped me to answer questions of how we might judge certain folks among us when judgment is necessary: the people we meet who are asking for our attention, our help, our money, our votes. Maybe this will help you, too. (But do remember: In these gender-neutral days of full inclusion, it’s not only possible and allowable, but most likely actually very smart, to turn the masculine pronouns to feminine ones as applicable…)

  1. He who knows naught, but knows not that he knows naught — he is a fool. Shun him.
  2. He who knows naught, but knows that he knows naught — he is a child. Teach him.
  3. He who knows, but knows not that he knows — he is asleep. Wake him.
  4. He who knows, and knows that he knows — he is wise. Follow him.
    Here’s the inevitable English language lesson: “Naught” is still alive and well, although mightily under-used: a very old word that means “nothing,” any something of no value or importance. It survives in the word most often applied to youngsters who don’t yet know much about behavior: “naughty.” The big picture: When folks move from childhood into adulthood, they should know something. And in many cases, they should know better than to act on what they are thinking.
    The word itself is related to “aught,” which, in theory, is naught’s opposite, meaning “anything.” But sometimes it’s closer to naught than to itself. In Old English, if one person said to another, “Do you know aught about (something),” it was often an insult, a back-door way of saying “Don’t you know anything at all about…?”
    Notice the gradations. A person who doesn’t even know enough to know that he knows nothing may not respond at all to attempts at teaching. But how can we identify someone who is one of the ones who knows nothing, but is worth educating? Truth told, the only way is to try to teach everyone, which is the model that our public schools have long been based on. And reality will out soon enough…
    Case in point: When I was doing my student teaching in a public high school so many moons ago, I was told on the first day to ignore “Herman,” who sat in the back row, unengaged in anything going on in the classroom, because he had apparently failed all the placement tests. But the truth was this: When his old test records were finally reviewed, it was discovered that Herman had received some booklets with missing pages. No wonder he had finished so quickly, and so poorly. And he was such a smart youngster: He had just settled, quite happily, for having everyone leave him alone, to read, think, expand his own mind. And since my particular class was Spanish, he had paid sufficient attention to come out top-of-the-heap when new language tests were given at the semester’s end!
    Somehow, it’s always seemed to me that there should be a fifth son added to that Pesach quartet: perhaps a latter-day relative of those referred to in the 135th Psalm, who have “mouths but do not speak, eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear.” Because I think this is a person we’ve all encountered: someone locked in his or her own brain, the dangerous one who — no matter how much or how little s/he actually knows — thinks, and acts, like s/he knows everything!

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America slowly losing title as a place of hope

Posted on 14 August 2019 by admin

Trouble in our time makes us look for happy things, things that help to make us feel at least a little bit better about the dire circumstances surrounding us.
We cling to those bits of humor, love, or wisdom, grabbing onto them as they fly past our consciousness, and hold them tight, as if they are talismans that might protect us from the next round of bullets.
Since Tree of Life in Pittsburgh — which is already almost 10 fast-flown months ago — we’ve wept again with those others in so many unlikely places, with Dayton and El Paso at the end of the list. Anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide; here in our own country, white supremacists target blacks and Hispanics, too — even those who are bona-fide citizens. Nothing makes any difference now; anyone with a grudge and a gun just gets out there and shoots, seemingly at random.
I come from a time when “The policeman is your friend” was taught to us at home and in kindergarten. And he was. Now I thank the policeman who stands guard at the door of my synagogue and walks its perimeter, but my words are these: “I’m glad you’re here. But I’m sorry you have to be here.” Sadly, policemen are not always people’s friends anymore; often they are also afraid, shooting in anticipation of being shot themselves. Our culture is now one of fear. Although we tell ourselves after every attack that our society is strong, that we will work together to overcome, I, for one, must sadly confess to some disbelief. These days, I look at our Jewish institutions here in North Texas, and I’m no longer thinking “If…,” but rather “When…”
But I also look for, and welcome and enjoy, those happy tales that bring me bits of relief, and here is one worth passing along.
It comes from a good friend, Roger — not Jewish — but who has at least one other good Jewish friend beside me, John. The two were classmates in college here in Texas, but my friend’s friend has lived and worked in California since their graduation a number of years ago. Now, since both are history buffs, their recent online exchange relating to Texas heroes of the past — centering on information about Maribeau B. Lamar, second president of the Republic of Texas — brought forth this surprising Jewish family history:
“My Austrian immigrant parents fleeing the Nazis in 1938, were so happy to land in Texas that they vowed to give their future kids the middle names of Texas heroes,” John wrote. “So my older brother was named Lawrence Lamar, and I followed as John Travis.” (The next one, he says, would have been middle-named Bowie, but there never was a third son in the family.)
John continued, “My folks spoke German and Yiddish, and very little English, yet they wanted to do this.” Roger reports that the two men met and became lifelong friends at their alma mater, Lamar University in Beaumont, a public institution that is a member of the Texas State University System. Lamar University started out as South Park Junior College, but worked its way up to full-service university status with degrees from bachelor through doctorate. It was renamed in 1971 after Lamar, who is fondly remembered, in addition to his presidency, as Texas’ “Father of Education.”
Somehow, all this seems particularly apt now in view of this Lamar quote, which Roger also passed on to me with his bit of friendship history: “The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of Democracy, and while guided and controlled by virtue, the noblest attribute of man. It is the only dictator that freemen acknowledge, and the only security which freemen desire.”
“Feel free to use it,” Roger added. “I’m sure my friend John Travis will approve!” My thought: Only education can save us now.

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Lessons of a lifetime allow reflection

Posted on 07 August 2019 by admin

I observed my 85th birthday. Please note that I didn’t say “celebrate.” My life has been good so far, and I hope that will continue. But this milestone is under the shadow of a tombstone. I’m not being morbid. I’m not even afraid: This is just a truth that I’m neither happy nor reluctant to acknowledge.
I hoped that my husband would reach this age before his life ended; he was only a few weeks shy of 85 when he died. My father passed away at only 59. My mother soldiered on alone for two decades, joining him when she was 79. I have one cousin, male, on each side of my family, both a bit above me in their 80s. But on the female side: I’m it! There’s a lot of matriarchal responsibility lurking there.
I’m one of those people who has never felt as old I am, because for a long time, I was always the youngest: graduating from school early, marrying early, having my children early. But now, I’m asking Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” question about myself: “You are old, Father William,” the young man said, “and your hair has become very white. And yet you incessantly stand on your head. Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
I never stood on my head, not literally, even long before my hair began its turning, but the question applies anyway, because I’ve done a lot of head-standing-type things, which will continue on as my life continues to lengthen — and, of course, to shorten.
Of course, the worry for me is not the body, but the brain. What if I lose the wonderful memory that’s been my lifetime’s greatest gift? How then could I recall all those places, times, people, incidents, that have gifted me with a writer’s store of stories? My physical life hasn’t been as kind: I’m among the last people in the world who can say, “I had scarlet fever”; my bones are not what they used to be, and neither are my eyes or ears. But somehow, I’ve managed to manage. From people I see after not seeing them for a long time, and for people I’m just meeting for the first time, I’m peppered with the same questions: Do you still live alone? Do you still drive? Do you still… Yes, I do. All of them. The ability to continue doing these things as life continues its simultaneous lengthening and shortening is itself life’s own greatest gift.
I think most often these days about my wise father, taken away at such a young age by a disease that didn’t even have a name, let alone any treatments, back in the mid-century. He was a doctor who specialized in diagnostics; he diagnosed his own illness, and no one could save him. But he could, and did, contribute much to medical knowledge before it claimed him. I learned from him how to live, and these days I pass his wisdom on to everyone: “In life, as in medicine, none of us knows what we’re going to get. We get what we get, and the longer we live, the more we get. So this is what to do: Take whatever life hands you, and make the best you can of it, because that’s all there is.”
I also think about my wise grandmother, my Boubby the Philosopher, who taught me to be Jewish, and whose life ended with this brief message she wrote in advance: “Please, no eulogy. If they don’t know me by now, it’s too late!”
The past’s baggage, good and bad, walks with me into this personal new year. May it be good for all of us.

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Jewish hymnals should make a comeback

Posted on 31 July 2019 by admin

Just a week after my uncle’s funeral in Pittsburgh, I attended another here in Dallas: this one of a Christian friend. She was memorialized with “A Celebration of Life” at Northaven United Methodist Church. But that church has struck the “United” from its name; it was one of the dissenters when the United Methodist Church, at its recent major meeting, decided against some of today’s challenging changes, such as accepting gays and lesbians as members and solemnizing same-sex marriages.
Northaven has been fully accepting of everyone for a long time, and “It’s too late to put the cork back into the bottle,” it says. And it wouldn’t ever have wanted to, anyway. It has now covered up the “United” on its front-lawn name sign with a cloth of many colors — gay pride colors!
(If you don’t know already: This is the church that has given Beth El Binah a home! When Dallas’ Reform congregation, founded by lesbians and gays but long since attracting others to membership, outgrew its first home in Oak Lawn, Northaven offered it the very large room that has now become both its full-time headquarters and sanctuary.)
An old friend of mine, a retired English teacher and Northaven church member, for years has been leading a poetry study group there, and I am part of it, attending the every-two-weeks Tuesday morning meetings. And it was one of this group’s members who passed away, very unexpectedly. Her Friday morning memorial service was quite simple: a few words from a few of Ann’s relatives and friends — including some from members of the poetry group, readings of two short Biblical passages, several prayers and music. I liked that last the best: Everyone joined in singing two hymns, and we all had all the words in front of us, because there’s a hymnal, along with a prayer book, on every one of the 333 seats in the sanctuary.
Holding a book of sacred music in my hands made me long for those “olden days” when Jews in many synagogues also had hymnals, when hymn-singing was part of every service. Many of our beloved Hanukkah songs came out of those books, but there was also both original and traditional music in them for other holidays, songs that have mostly disappeared from our worship today. How many of you can remember “Father, See Thy Suppliant Children,” a vanished staple for Confirmation? How many can sing more than one verse of “Rock of Ages”? With hymnal in hand, so much more singing is possible.
At Ann’s funeral, a song chosen for communal singing was “Hymn of Promise,” a United Methodist Hymnal suggestion for memorial services and funerals because its theme is eternal life. These are the words of its first two verses: “In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed an apple tree…in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free…In the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody…there’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me…From the past will come the future, what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”
There’s nothing to offend Judaism or any other faith in these simple words, which sound quite wonderful when sung aloud by a group of individuals, all of whom have all the words in front of them, with a simple single piano accompaniment to keep everyone in tune.
This hymnal, published in 1989, offers 896 different songs on almost a thousand pages! I wish all streams of today’s Judaism would “resurrect” that old singing tradition for us. Our book could be much shorter, with no instrumental accompaniment necessary. But what a welcome way for us to raise our voices in praise of God, and we might even surprise ourselves with how good we sound!

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Uncle Irv and 4 generations of a family

Posted on 25 July 2019 by admin

I was in Pittsburgh last week for the funeral of my last uncle. My mother was the oldest of 12 children: seven sisters, five brothers. He was the youngest and died at 96, having easily outlived all the others.
Yes, death is a part of life. But a passing like this makes me think beyond that truism: Uncle Irv was not only the final survivor of a huge family, he was my last link, my family’s last link, to that generation of American-Jewish children born to immigrant parents, escapees from pogroms; children who went to school in the morning and came home in the afternoon to teach their mother and father English. To go with them to a shul where prayer book Hebrew was mixed up with a tangle of Yiddish and some European languages: Russian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Romanian.
My uncle lived long enough to watch my two great-grandsons grow from babyhood into schoolboys. Because of him, we were — for a too-few, too-brief years — a five-generation family. Not many families today can claim that exhilarating experience.
My uncle and his four brothers joined the surge of young patriots who signed up for military service the day after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. They were proud young Americans who saw the world as nobody should have to see it — France and Belgium, Africa and Italy — not as tourists enjoying themselves, but as boy-men with rifles poking uneasily into houses that looked unoccupied, but might conceal a Nazi who could shoot first.
My family was lucky. I remember my Boubby the Philosopher joyously removing her Five-Star banner from her front window when the last of them had, finally, safely returned. Yes, they were the Greatest Generation, but they were never again the carefree youngsters they had been when they left home.
The family’s final home — after moving from one apartment to another as the crowd of children grew larger and larger — was a big gift from the five returnees, made possible by their wartime pay. It had six bedrooms and cost $4,100 in 1945. The first dinner around a big table in its big dining room was for Thanksgiving of that year. There was so much to give thanks for!
One by one, the sisters left the nest to marry and have children. But the men didn’t have children — even the ones who married. They were too scarred, too afraid. They didn’t want to see another generation suffer as they had. The population of the big house dwindled, but the house itself remained the family hub, the gathering place for holidays and Shabbos dinners with chicken soup, and chopped liver, and white cake heavy with walnuts — where the women exchanged their stories in the kitchen as they washed the dishes by hand, and the men dozed in the living room. It was that kind of world then: Men worked hard all day, claimed their well-earned post-meal rest, and the women concurred.
So many years passed, but Uncle Irv still lived in the big old house, all by himself, after everyone else was gone. He wanted to do what today is called “die in place,” but it wasn’t to be; finally, he was in hospice care. Not quite himself toward the end, still there were flashes. My cousin Dave was his last family visitor, and heard the last full sentences our uncle spoke: “Why are you here? Don’t you have some errands to run?’” Completely in character for a man who was practical down to his final earthly moment.
I worked all the many family names — the living and the dead — into his obituary. People from at least a half-dozen states made the trip for the funeral and the shiva gathering afterward. Four generations now, we sat together, remembering. That’s our new job, to tell the stories to our children, grandchildren and great-grands, so through our memories, Uncle Irv will live on after himself.

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